When late summer turns to fall, temperatures start to drop and football season is in the air. The excitement — both on and off campuses — is palpable. Football has become part of the cadence and ritual of the American autumn. It is part of the natural order of things that Saturdays are for the college game and Sundays are for the NFL, right?
One might be excused for thinking that this arrangement was etched in the tablets that Moses brought down from the mount. In actuality, the Saturday/Sunday division between college and pro football is the result of governmental regulation of sports on television. Yup, you read that right, government regulation.
The first televised sporting event in the United States was a baseball game between Princeton and Columbia in 1939, coming only 19 years after the first radio broadcast. At the time, the New York Times was not impressed: "seeing baseball by television is too confining .... What would... old-timers think of such a turn of affairs — baseball from a sofa!"
Old timers aside, televised sport soon became a big deal. Since the 1950s, sport has been inextricably intertwined with public policiesthat regulate television broadcasts of live events. The first televised CU football game occurred in November, 1951, a 36-14 victory over Nebraska shown locally on NBC.
The marriage of sport, government and the public is what we at CU Boulder call "sports governance" and is the focus of a new center that we have created in our Department of Athletics.
The CU Boulder Sports Governance Center is, to the best of our knowledge, the first and only academic unit in a major university that resides inside an Athletics Department, making us both innovators and guinea pigs. We are focused on teaching, research and public outreach.
With this column, set to appear monthly through the rest of this year, I will engage some of the most controversial and contested issues in big-time college sports from my vantage point as a professor in a college athletics department — issues, like finances and academic fraud.
Sports governance is one of those things that has always been in the background, but with issues such as corruption in global soccer, doping scandals in the Olympics and Tom Brady's deflated footballs, issues related to how sports are governed are attracting much more attention. We think it is time to cast a rigorous, academic eye on these topics.
The gerrymandering of football on weekends between colleges and the NFL is an example of how sports governance shapes the games and also our society.
In 1953, U.S. courts determined that it was legal for the NFL to "blackout" games from outside a region in the area where a game was being played. The courts and the league worried that people whose local teams were relatively weaker would stay home to watch more competitive match-ups between strong teams. This dynamic, they thought, would ultimately lead to the failure of smaller, weaker teams who could not attract crowds and thus revenue, ultimately leading to the collapse of the league itself. At the time gate receipts were the largest source of revenues for professional teams, and the new technology of television threatened that model.
Several years later the NFL, and upstart AFL, decided to address this problem by bundling its games together, and selling them as a package to the TV networks. However, the US courts ruled that anti-trust laws meant that the leagues could not package their football games for sale to the TV networks, arguing that it violated the rights of individual clubs.
As a result of this court decision against bundling, according to a law review article by Brett Goodman, "the NFL, immediately ran to Congress, which lent a sympathetic ear." A result of th leagues' lobbying of Congress was the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961 which granted Congressional protection to the football leagues to negotiate TV rights collectively, a form of anti-trust exemption.
The exemption was not extended to all days of the week, however. The Act carved out Saturdays for televising college games, lest they have to compete with the pros. Specifically, the anti-trust exemption granted to the NFL and AFL did "not apply to any professional football game televised (1) between the hours of 6 pm Friday and 12 am Sunday, (2) beginning on the second Friday in September and ending on the second Saturday in December."
The cadence of fall football was set, not in stone, but in government regulation. The next time someone asks you why college football is on Saturdays and the NFL plays on Sundays, you know the answer: sports governance.
Next month I'll take a close look at the complex world of college athletics finances, a much misunderstood and oversimplified topic, but one that is essential to understand to make sense of big time college sports.
Roger Pielke Jr. is professor and director of the Sports Governance Center in the CU Boulder Athletics Department. He is the author of The Edge: The War Against Cheating and Corruption in the Cutthroat World of Elite Sport, out next month. He can be found on Twitter @RogerPielkeJr and at his blog, http://leastthing.blogspot.com